In the lead-up to the Congress of the Swiss Abroad held in Basel, 116 delegates from all over the world assembled in the historic town hall on Friday 18 August for the constituent meeting of the new Council of the Swiss Abroad (CSA) for the term 2017-2021.
First on the agenda was the election of members of the board of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA). Following the retirement of several long-serving members, two new members from within Switzerland, National Councillors Laurent Wehrli (FDP/VD) and Claudio Zanetti (SVP/ZH), as well as four new members from outside Switzerland, were elected to the executive.
With an estimated 30 to 40% of CSA and around half the members of the OSA executive being new to the task, there was a sense of excitement and vigour, or as CSA Oceania Beat Knoblauch who was at the meeting, described it: “there was a fresh wind blowing”. The two delegates from New Zealand, Peter Ehrler and Peter Canziani were also attending.
Changes to Social Security
One of the main political agenda items was ‘Altersvorsorge 2020‘ – proposed changes to the social security insurance (AHV/IV) that Swiss voters will decide on 24 September and which will also affect Swiss Abroad.
This issue caused controversy and outrage among many Swiss Abroad recently after Liberal Party (FDP) President Petra Gössi allegedly called for pension cuts for Swiss Abroad, as many of them paid no taxes in Switzerland.
After a short presentation of arguments by a supporter and an opponent of the proposal, a majority of 80 CSA recommended approval of the amended social security package, 22 came out against it with eight abstentions.
On the supporting side of the argument, Tim Guldimann, a Social Democrat (SP) Member of Parliament and CSA from Germany, said the proposal was a balanced compromise and would be beneficial to the increasing Swiss Abroad community. He added that the compromise solution approved by parliament in March came with a price, notably for the younger generation and women. But the reform would also result in a slight increase in payments for all new pensioners and additional legal guarantees for certain groups of expats.
“The urgently needed reform would be blocked for years, if it is rejected by voters,” he warned. Previous attempts to adapt the social security system to the demographic changes of an aging society have all failed over the past two decades.
Presenting the opposing camp, François Baur of the Swiss Business Federation and a member of the Liberal Party (FDP), said the proposal was not sustainable and too costly. “We will have the same funding problems again in 2035 at the latest,” he said.
The money needed for the reform, notably through an increase in value-added tax (VAT), should be used to boost education, according to Baur.
The assembly once again discussed the controversial policy of Swiss banks towards Swiss Abroad clients, following numerous complaints about discriminatory business practices.
Roland Rino Büchel, a Swiss Peoples’ Party (SVP) parliamentarian and leading member of the CSA, said it was important to keep up pressure on the government and notably demand that PostFinance, the financial service unit of the state-owned Swiss Post, must offer services to Swiss expatriates under reasonable conditions. He said he was confident that parliament was willing to take action now.
A resolution lodged by a CSA from Hungary calling for legal action against PostFinance for alleged discrimination against Swiss Abroad, was withdrawn in favour for increased political pressure.
A snapshot of the current state of e-voting was presented. It is expected that for the federal election in 2019, two thirds of cantons will have introduced e-voting for all Swiss voters. So far eight cantons have been approved by the Federal Council to use e-voting (Geneva, Basel-City, Lucerne, Bern, Aargau, St. Gallen, Neuchâtel and Fribourg). Further ‘encouragement’ will have to be given to some cantons that are lagging behind in developing e-voting for their citizens.
Beat Knoblauch suggested that the OSA should compile a report on the behaviour pattern of the political parties and politicians regarding issues that affect Swiss Abroad. Such information would be very useful in enabling Swiss Abroad voters to make informed choices at the next federal election. This proposal was acknowledged by the President Remo Gysin.
A report analysing the e-voting pilot project to elect the CSA in Australia and Mexico was presented. The project can be regarded as a great success as no notable problems were encountered and the benefits were substantial. Apart from being an important step forward in modernising and democratising the election process of the CSA, it also significantly improved the visibility and popularity of the CSA and OSA in those countries. See video presentation.
It was suggested by some that only those that are enlisted on an electoral roll in Switzerland should be allowed to take part in e-voting to elect the CSA in the future. The CSA Oceania is adamant in rejecting such a restriction to be imposed and believes that these elections should be open to all eligible Swiss. Beat Knoblauch and Peter Ehrler strongly defended our point of view.
Cooperation OSA – swissinfo.ch
The OSA and swissinfo.ch have agreed to increase cooperation. A deal between the OSA and the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), the parent company of swissinfo.ch, foresees a regular exchange of editorial content provided by swissinfo.ch and by the Swiss Review magazine, which is published by the OSA.
There are projects to strengthen cross-promotion on social media as well as a joint presence at special events, including for National Day celebrations, to increase visibility for both partners. Synergies could also be used for online marketing, according to a statement by the SBC.
Centenary of the Foundation for Young Swiss Abroad (FYSA)
The Foundation was created in 1917 in order to allow Swiss children living in disaster-torn areas abroad to spend a couple of weeks respite with host families in Switzerland. The President of FYSA, Philippe Vuillemin, presented an overview of the charity. See website.
Congress of the Swiss Abroad
Around 400 participants attended the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad on Saturday. Keynote speaker and guest of honour was Interior Minister Alain Berset who highlighted the experience and expertise of Swiss citizens living around the world and pointed out the truth behind Swiss clichés.
“Switzerland doesn’t lose anything if its citizens go and live in another country, on the contrary, Switzerland benefits from its expats and the world benefits from them too,” said Berset.
Referring to the OSA, he said it’s crucial to have an organisation, which makes the link with the expat community and understands its special perspective on Switzerland. He also pointed out Switzerland’s traditions, its assets and its values, including its political diversity.
Regarding next month’s nationwide vote on a reform of the old age pension scheme, Berset highlighted a key political value: The ability to find compromises and seek a consensus between different groups.
Roland Isler, CSA Oceania – with thanks to swissinfo.ch